Norway Travel Guide: Overview
Welcome to Norway, one of the largest and most extensive playgrounds for outdoor enthusiasts! Whether you’re here to marvel at the impossibly sheer mountains tumbling into winding, narrow fjords or to partake in some adrenaline-inducing activities (white-water rafting and dogsledding, to name a few), Norway provides endless delights among some of the world’s most scenic backdrops. For outdoor adventurers, experience the eerie majesty of the midnight sun around the summer solstice, catch a glimpse of polar bears in the arctic wonderland of Svalbard, or take in the shimmering magnificence of the northern lights. For city dwellers, soak in the sophistication and culture of Oslo, and absorb the vibrant, vivid legacy of the Vikings. Whatever you’re seeking, one thing is clear: Norway is truly a one-of-a-kind experience.
What’s known as “modern Norway” has only been around for approximately 200 years, but this region’s history far predates that. The land of present-day Norway became habitable in approximately 12,000 BC. The sealing, fishing and hunting opportunities eventually drew people, and while there’s debate about the timing of the earliest inhabitants, the oldest discovered human remains were carbon dated to 6600 BC.
By around 2500 BC, people in the north were using the most basic wooden skis and slate tools, and farming techniques from the south had migrated northward. With the Iron Age came more effective tools and easier cultivation, which led to increased yields and a new social structure revolving around familial clans. The runic alphabet was devised after the first century, and trading of furs and skins became increasingly common. The most successful and powerful farmers eventually became chieftains, and this social hierarchy carried over into the Viking Age. This notable period in Norwegian history was one of expansion across the Nordic region.
While the Viking Age (800–1066) included its share of bloody conquests, it was also a time of implementing complex social institutions and navigating the difficult introduction of Christianity to Scandinavia. The trade, colonization and exploration of the Vikings brought differing cultures in contact and greatly impacted the course of European history during this time. Frequent Viking victories are often attributed to excellent weaponry, chain mail armor and the ideological belief that death in battle could lead directly to Valhalla.
Fierce English resistance to Viking raids eventually forced the Norwegians farther afield to Iceland, Newfoundland and other locations, and in the ninth century, civil war raged among the Viking chieftains. King Harald Fairhair emerged victorious and united Norway into its first statehood.
From the late 13th century to the early 14th century, Norway enjoyed a golden age of peace, increasing trade with Germany and Britain and an expanding population. This era was cut short, however, with the 1349 introduction of the Black Death, which wiped out about one-third of the Norwegian population in a single year.
With its weakened position, Norway became part of a union between itself and Denmark. Sweden later joined as well. Although relegated in this alliance, Norway had neither the economic nor social power to withdraw, and it eventually found itself a Danish province. As Denmark and Sweden waged territorial wars in the 17th century, Norway quietly grew its economy through timber and, later, mining, shipping and fishing.
Denmark-Norway suffered a weakened economy after backing France in the Napoleonic Wars, and Norway finally had its opening to fuel an independence movement. On May 17, 1814, Norway adopted its new constitution, which provided for a king and a parliamentary body. Several weeks later, Sweden’s King Carl Johan invaded Norway. Despite keeping the new Norwegian constitution intact, the nation fell to Swedish rule. It wasn’t until October 26, 1905, that Sweden eventually recognized Norway’s autonomy as a constitutional monarchy.
The century from 1825 to 1925 saw mass emigration to the United States from rural Norway. Nearly 800,000 people settled in North America during this time, primarily in the American Midwest.
Despite throwing marine support behind the British troops in World War I, Norway was officially neutral, and from the beginning to the end of World War II, Nazi Germany occupied Norway. A clandestine resistance grew strong in Norway, however, numbering 40,000 strong by the war’s conclusion. Despite landing some crippling blows to the German nuclear energy project, Norway suffered heavily from German occupation, and many locals had to turn to subsistence farming.
After the war ended and German troops left, Norway campaigned for a Scandinavian defense union but, instead, became a founding member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). The economy slowly recovered, bolstered by the 1952 Olympics in Oslo.
In 1969, the Ekofisk oil field was discovered, which quickly led to job creation and significant revenue. Norway became the largest oil producer in Europe by 1990. In 1994, Norway rejected European Union membership but did join the Schengen Agreement, which essentially eliminated internal border checks between Norway and other participating nations.
Today, oil and gas still account for approximately 20 percent of its economy, and through reinvestment, the nation has secured one of the world’s largest sovereign wealth funds. Prosperous, beautiful and remote, Norway is a thriving tourism hub that brings millions of people from around the globe every year.
Norwegian culture is a fascinating blend of modern, forward-thinking ventures and homages to their storied past. While this is evident in many arenas, architecture is one clear example. Wood has always been an important building material for the Norwegians, and it’s seen in everything from the stave churches of the early Middle Ages to the present-day Sami Parliament building.
Norwegian culture is also populated with several notable literary figures, including Nobel Prize winners Knut Hamsun, Sigrid Undset and Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson. Predating the Nobel Prize for literature is, arguably, Norway’s greatest literary giant, Henrik Ibsen (A Doll’s House, The Lady from the Sea and more).
In the visual arts, notable figures include Johan Christian Dahl, whose landscape paintings of Western Norway are often held up as examples of the golden age of Norwegian painting, and Edvard Munch (The Scream), but the Norwegian music scene is, perhaps, the most diverse and intriguing. The nation has produced some of the most decorated classical artists (pianist Leif Ove Andsnes and cellist Truls Mørk), but it also has a thriving jazz scene, a strong tradition of folk music and a diverse and influential lineage of counterculture music, including black metal, gothic metal and death metal.
Good to Know
When traveling in Norway, keep some of the following in mind:
Tipping isn’t compulsory in Norway, but many Norwegians will leave 5 to 10 percent of the restaurant bill if they’re particularly satisfied with the service. Simply rounding up the bill is common and appropriate.
A similar policy applies in taxis. No tip is necessary, but rounding up the fare is also perfectly acceptable. If the driver was particularly helpful or navigated away from traffic to save you some money, consider leaving a small tip as a gesture of appreciation.
When it comes to hotels, tipping is practically nonexistent. Porters aren’t common (except at very high-end hotels), and even when they’re there, tipping isn’t expected. Leaving a tip for the cleaning staff is also uncommon.
In general, Norwegians are an honest, sincere people who prize egalitarian views, mutual respect and humility. They’re also fairly casual about day-to-day interactions and will gladly greet strangers with a handshake and a smile. First names are usually given over more formal honorifics.
Norwegians are notorious for downplaying their own achievements, especially those related to wealth or intelligence. They are, therefore, unimpressed by others who brag about such things. In Norway, people tend to be judged on their relative honesty and goodness over social standing, so avoid ostentatious shows of wealth or status.
If you’re invited to a Norwegian home for dinner, come on time and bearing a small gift, such as wine, chocolate or flowers. (If bringing flowers, avoid carnations, white flowers or lilies. All these are associated with funerals. Also, always bring an odd number of flowers.) At a social gathering, avoid talking about work. Norwegians tend to have a healthy appreciation for separating business and personal affairs.
In an otherwise casual nation, table manners are surprisingly formal, so always opt for a knife and fork over fingers. Don’t dig in until the hostess has taken the first bite, and any toast should be made with an alcoholic drink—but never beer.
Norway operates on 220 volts, and the plugs you’ll most likely encounter are type C and F (two round prongs). If you’re bringing devices intended for use in the United States, you’ll want to pack both an adapter and a converter.
Public bathrooms are readily available throughout much of Norway. Many towns and roadside stops are equipped with facilities, but be aware you might have to pay 5 to 10 krone to use public bathrooms in some shopping malls, bus terminals or even restaurants. Always have a few krone on hand for this purpose.
If you’re looking for a particular treat in the public bathroom arena, make a point to stop by Ureddplassen via road Fv17. Along this designated scenic route is what many have dubbed the “world’s most beautiful public toilet.” With its wave-shaped design, frosted-glass windows and beautiful, warm lighting, the building itself would be enough to impress, but add in the breathtaking views of the Norwegian Sea and frequent northern lights appearances, and this is one unusual but worthwhile tourist stop!
Drinking water is safe and of excellent quality throughout Norway. If you prefer bottled water, however, it’s readily available from grocery stores, gas stations and the like.
When you’re out in the Norwegian wilds, be wary of drinking from streams. As in any country, even if the water looks clear and safe, it might contain any number of parasites. Always err on the side of caution, and boil, filter or otherwise sanitize your drinking water.
Norway uses the Norwegian krone. In English, this roughly translates to “crown.”
Backroads Pro Tip
Many Scandinavian countries have similar-sounding currencies, but the Swedish krona, the Danish krone and the Norwegian krone are all separate and distinct. They aren’t interchangeable across nations, so if your trip will take you throughout Scandinavia, you’ll need to exchange into the local currency every time.
US dollars and Euro aren’t readily accepted in Norway, so you’ll have to use a currency exchange or withdraw from an ATM to get krone in cash. ATMs are readily available, and credit cards are accepted at many retailers, barring some gas stations and smaller retail locations. It’s always a good idea to have some krone on hand in case a location isn’t equipped for card payment.
Money exchanges are also widely available, but particularly at airports and hotels, rates can be poor and fees high. Depending on your card’s international fees, many find the rates associated with ATMs are more favorable.
Backroads Pro Tip
If you use your credit card and are offered to be charged in krone or your home currency, always choose krone. This option is known as dynamic currency conversion (DCC), and when you choose your home currency, the exchange rate is usually poor, and it can also come with its own transactional fee.
When traveling to any foreign country, always alert your bank and credit cards to your travel dates. This helps avoid legitimate charges being flagged as fraudulent and your card being frozen.
When To Visit Norway
Norway provides some of the world’s most stunning views and majestic landscapes, and every season offers something unique and thrilling in this one-of-a-kind place.
Winter months offer up long hours of darkness and chilly temperatures (even in the southern regions) but also provide fantastic opportunities for winter sports, such as cross-country skiing, and chances to spot the mesmerizing northern lights. For festive holiday adornments, plan a trip in December.
March provides a great balance of available daylight and snow at resorts, while April and May find Norway covered in beautiful wildflower blooms.
Full summer months (June, July and August) bring long hours of daylight and pleasant temperatures, meaning you get plenty of time to explore everything Norway has to offer, including hiking, cycling and white-water rafting. (Just beware of the biting insects in marshlands and up north during this window!)
For those hoping to catch a glimpse of polar bears, head to Svalbard from May to September.
Full Article Coming Soon!
- If you’re looking for fjords, Norway is the place to be. It features the world’s highest concentration of this natural attraction.
- We can all thank Norway for the paper clip. Norwegian inventor Johan Vaaler devised the handy tool in 1899.
- In 1252, the king of Norway gifted England’s Henry III a polar bear, which was kept in the Tower of London and put on a long chain in order to swim and to fish in the Thames.
- In the remote northern village of Longyearbyen, it’s illegal to die. The permafrost prevents bodies from decomposing, and the statute was passed in 1950 to address the problem.
Full article coming soon!
Regions and Cities
The most populous of all Norwegian regions, Eastern Norway is a lovely combination of mountainous terrain; deep valleys; conifer, spruce and pine forests and rolling hills. Cosmopolitan Oslo coexists here with more traditional rural areas, giving this region the simultaneous feel of modernity and reverence for the past.
Architecturally stunning, highly cultured and downright fun, this capital city provides world-class food, hopping nightlife, serene green spaces and culture to spare. You’ll no doubt see mentions of Edvard Munch and Henrik Ibsen, two of the city’s most notable cultural icons, but Oslo also offers up an exciting and emerging contemporary art scene that shouldn’t be missed.
Featuring rugged coastline, soaring mountains and extensive fjords, Western Norway has long been a mecca for tourists. Some of the most popular city stops are here (think Bergen), but stand among the snow-capped peaks, and feel the power of water tumbling thousands of feet to crash in pools below, and you’ll start to appreciate that landscape and scenery truly take center stage in the west.
In a country dotted with little villages beside breathtaking fjords, what makes Balestrand so special? Beyond its incredible views, the 19th-century architecture is worth the stop alone, and if you avoid the cruise crowds, it can be a lovely and peaceful retreat.
The picturesque hills and fjords offer Bergen its natural appeal, but this city’s historical significance is also palpable. The seaport, wonderfully preserved wooden buildings and handful of top-rate art museums are all worth stops during the day, and as night descends, you can party with the lively student population in buzzy bars and clubs.
Situated high above a valley, Stalheim staggers many with its sheer beauty, and it has an interesting past to boot. In particular, don’t miss Stalheimskleiva, an old mail road on the Royal Mail route. It features a nail-biting 18 percent gradient, 13 hairpin turns and unreal views of the Stalheim and Sivle Waterfalls.
Best known for its 24 hours of daylight during the summer and the appearance of the northern lights from fall to mid-April, Northern Norway is a beautiful collection of dense forests, narrow fjords, towering mountains and thundering waterfalls. It’s also a multicultural area, housing Norwegians, indigenous Sami, Finns and Russians.
In the Lofoten Islands, jagged spires of land span across the sky, and land bridges and tunnels connect picturesque villages across the numerous islands. The Arctic light here lends the entire place an otherworldly feel that has long called artists—find their works in the numerous galleries across the islands—and all you need to do is simply follow the E10 for a scenic drive you won’t soon forget. Plan for an extra day or two, though. You’ll want to take as many side trips and detours as possible!
Worth a Visit
No Norway travel experience would be complete without a few stops at some of the stunning, pristine and dramatic Norwegian fjords. In total, about 1,190 fjords exist across the nation, and no matter which ones you choose to visit, just make sure to take in the entire experience: the views, the accompanying natural wonders, such as waterfalls and sheer mountain cliffs, and the charming villages that surround these majestic inlets.
For what’s sure to prove one of the most heart-pounding photo ops of your life, step onto this famous boulder wedged in a mountain crevasse. The rock is approximately five cubic meters and features a 984-meter (3,228-foot) drop-off below. Because you aren’t protected by barriers, ropes or safety lines of any kind, getting this photo definitely isn’t for the faint of heart!
Trolltunga (Troll Tongue)
Located in Odda in Hordaland County, Trolltunga is a jutting horizontal plateau of rock that reaches out into the sky and features an adrenaline-inducing freefall below of approximately 700 meters (2,300 feet). The view can only be earned after a 27-kilometer (nearly 17-mile) roundtrip hike from Skjeggedal.
Viking Ship Museum
Step back in time to the era of the Vikings at this Oslo-based museum. Come for the main attraction—the fully intact Oseberg ship, which dates to approximately 820 AD—but delight in the smaller artifacts of the Viking Age as well, including beds, wood carvings, a horse cart and a number of grave goods.
While Vøringfossen is one of Norway’s best-known attractions and the Seven Sisters Waterfall is undeniably amazing, don’t limit yourself to these waterfalls alone. After all, Norway contains 10 of the globe’s 30 highest waterfalls. For the best viewing, stick to the southwestern region from May to June, when ice and snow runoff puts water levels at their highest and waterfalls at their most powerful.
Things to See and to Do
Full Article Coming Soon!
How to Get to Norway
A US citizen can enter Norway without a visa if the stay is 90 days or less. The trip can be for business or tourism purposes. You will, however, need proof of your return ticket home and a passport that’s valid for at least three months after your intended departure date.
If you’re entering Norway from another country, you’ll likely use the nation’s busiest airport, Oslo Airport (Gardermoen). Other commonly used international airports include Bergen Airport (Flesland), Stavanger Airport (Sola) and Trondheim Airport (Værnes).
In all, Norway has 98 airports, 48 of which cater to public flights. Domestic flights are extremely common here because the terrain lends itself to complicated road and rail infrastructure.
Due to Norway’s relatively low population density, infrastructure for public transportation is less established in rural areas and more developed in cities, but it’s still easy to hop from hub to hub by rail, bus and ferry.
The Norwegian rail system is, by no means, comprehensive, but it does connect major cities, such as Oslo, Bergen, Trondheim and more. Again, though, don’t bank on reaching more secluded or rural areas via rail.
Local buses are available in any given city or town, and express coaches run throughout the country for long-distance travel. This is an easy, convenient way to get to more out-of-the-way places.
Car and passenger ferries are a particularly important facet of public transportation in Norway. These travel across fjords and link islands that don’t have road, bridge or tunnel access. Within Norway, you can find over one hundred ferry connection points. International cruise ferries provide transport to and from Denmark, Germany and Sweden.
Renting a car in Norway is possible, and it allows you to get to more remote areas without relying on public transport. Road systems between cities are well maintained, and with the high cost of buses and trains, a car can provide extra flexibility for a somewhat comparable price. (Note, with the high price of gas and frequent road tolls, however, the economy of renting a car depends on how far you’re planning to travel and how many people are splitting the car rental with you). To rent a car, you must be 19 years old and have had your license for at least one year. Make sure to confirm the requirements and restrictions of your desired car rental agency before booking anything.
Backroads Pro Tip
Depending on your car rental agency, expect a young driver surcharge for anyone under 25 years old.
When you need to cover larger distances across Norway, domestic flights are common. This is an efficient mode of transport that allows you to avoid difficult-to-navigate fjords and any other troublesome terrain.
The official language of Norway is Norwegian. This is also the most widely spoken throughout the nation. It’s North Germanic, a linguistic descendant of Old Norse and closely related to both Danish and Swedish.
Many Norwegians are fluent in English, and even more are capable of carrying on at least a basic conversation in English. So, if you don’t speak Norwegian, don’t stress. You’ll likely get by just fine with English alone.
However, if you want to try your hand at a few local phrases, here are some basics to get you started:
- Hello, Hi: Hallo, Hei
- Good-bye: Ha det
- Thank you: Takk skal du ha
- Please: Vær så snill
- Yes: Ja
- No: Nei
- Do you speak English?: Snakker du engelsk?
Food and Drink
Traditional Norwegian cuisine is largely influenced by the food sources available in its mountains, seas and wilds, namely fish and game, and due to its long winters, it has historically focused heavily on preserved or cured foods.
Quintessential Norwegian dishes include the following:
Coffee: Norwegians love their coffee! In terms of coffee consumption, the nation has the fourth-highest per capita rate worldwide. Coffee, usually served black and in mugs, plays a significant role in the country’s social culture. Inviting someone over almost always implies coffee and cakes will be available.
Dessert: Fruits play a big role in Norwegian desserts. This includes strawberries, raspberries, apples, lingonberries and cloudberries (a national delicacy). Fruit-filled pies are common, as is Krumkake, a thin pancake rolled and served with whipping cream.
Game: Particularly in higher-end Norwegian cuisine, you’ll find an array of game, such as moose, hare, duck and fowl. (Reindeer is also eaten, but all reindeer in Norway are semi-domesticated and aren’t, therefore, technically “game.”)
Gravlaks: Literally translated as “buried salmon,” gravlaks was traditionally cured for one full day in a combination of dill, salt and sugar. The result is a unique dish that’s both sweet and salty.
Lutefisk: Arguably the most famous (or infamous!) Norwegian fish dish, lutefisk is dried ling or cod that’s then steeped in lye. Today, it’s eaten mostly in coastal regions around Christmastime.
Sodd: Made with mutton and meatballs, this dish resembles a soup or stew and contains vegetables, such as potatoes and carrots.
Smoked Salmon: Internationally renowned, smoked salmon is a traditional Norse offering, and it comes in many varieties. It’s most often paired with scrambled eggs, sandwiches or mustard sauce.
Whale Meat: In the early 20th century, whale meat was considered a cheap substitute for beef, and while consumption has steadily declined over the years, it’s still available throughout Norway and not viewed as a controversial meal.
As countries become increasingly connected, more and more external influences have acted on Norwegian cuisine. It’s possible today to find just about any food option you’d get in any Western European country.
Food in Norway: What to Know and to Eat—Full Article Coming Soon!
Norway is generally a very safe country, ranking as the world’s ninth-safest nation, according to SafeAround. Still, take common sense precautions to avoid pickpockets, especially in Oslo and Bergen, and be alert to potential scams targeting tourists. Tip-offs include people trying to help unprompted with your luggage or insistently attempting to distract you. Scamming is most common in Oslo.
Any Norwegian travel guide should note, however, that the largest potential safety hazard here is the environment itself. During the winter and in northern regions of the country, temperatures can be low, and weather can be severe and unpredictable. If you’re planning on any outdoor adventuring, always make sure you’re equipped with the proper gear. Every year, the mountains and sea claim tourists who were ill prepared or inexperienced in those environments. Polar bear attacks, while not common, can occur in Svalbard and other northern regions. Never venture into these areas alone, and maintain a healthy respect for the power and danger of these wild animals.
If you do find yourself in need of emergency services, call 112. The number is toll free.
WHAT IS BACKROADS
Established in 1979, Backroads is a pioneer in active, immersive and off-the-beaten-path travel. Now operating adventure tours in over 50 countries, our passion for discovery and our desire to experience the world in original ways continue to inspire our pursuit of new adventures. We hope this guide will be enlightening to you as you plan your next great Norway adventure!